Ossie Davis Biography
Grew Up Poor in the South, Began Acting as Research, Noted Poor Treatment of Blacks
Actor, director, producer, writer
With the build and vitality of an NFL lineman, Ossie Davis hardly looked like the grand old man of black theater. Known to younger audiences as Ponder Blue on television's Evening Shade and as "the mayor" in filmmaker Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, Davis made his Broadway debut in Jeb in 1946. He directed the landmark film Cotton Comes to Harlem in 1970 and wrote and starred in Purlie Victorious, the 1961 play that was eventually revived as the smash Broadway musical Purlie. Enthralled with his art, Davis worked until the day he died in 2005.
Grew Up Poor in the South
Raiford Chatman Davis was born on December 18, 1917, in tiny Cogdell, Georgia. His name was officially registered as "Ossie" when a clerk misheard Davis' mother pronounce her newborn son's initials "R. C." Laura Davis did not correct the clerk, according to the Sarasota Herald Tribune. The oldest of five children, he grew up in a family of poor but inspired preachers and storytellers, an environment that provided him good grounding for the stage. "Acting and preaching are essentially the same—unabashedly so," Davis told Florida's Palm Beach Post. "The theater is a church and I consider myself as part of an institution that has an obligation to teach about Americanism, our culture and morals."
Though neither his father, Kince Charles Davis, a railway construction worker, nor his mother, Laura, ever learned to read, they nevertheless, through the oral tradition, taught Davis the importance of education. "I was just caught up in the wonderful stories mom and dad would tell," he told the Palm Beach Post. "They weren't children's stories, but humorous tales of their own escapades. They took life and broke it up in little pieces and fed it to us like little birds. I think I always knew what I wanted to do. I went to school to learn to write."
Like many blacks growing up in the 1920s, Davis managed to find good role models despite a resource-poor environment. "My mentors were real and unreal," he told American Visions. "My mentors were Brer Rabbit and High John the Conqueror, and even animals to whom I could talk when I was a boy. My mentors were friends who could tell jokes faster than me. Of course, I had organized mentors, too. Regular teachers in school and out. And there were mentors on the stage itself. People like [singers] Paul Robeson, Lena Horne, and [trumpet player] Louis Armstrong."
But while a lack of resources could not prevent him from wanting to learn, they almost prevented him from getting an education. Though Davis's parents were full of pride when he won a scholarship to Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, he had to turn it down because they had no money to pay for his living expenses. In 1935, though, things took a turn for the better; two aunts living in Washington, D.C., agreed to house him while he attended Howard University. "My parents found enough money to buy me lunch one day and I hitchhiked to Washington to live with my aunts and attend Howard University," he told the Palm Beach Post. "There I met a number of people who were very important to my career."
Began Acting as Research
Chief among Davis's influences at Howard was Alain Locke. Called "the philosophical midwife to a generation of younger artists, writers and poets" by American Visions, Locke, a drama critic and professor of philosophy, encouraged Davis, who already wanted to write for the theater, to move to Harlem and join the Rose McClendon Players. Locke suggested that Davis, who had never seen live actors, would benefit from acting and learning what it takes to put on a play. Davis accepted the idea but only as a way to further his writing ambitions. "I never, never intended to become an actor," he told Newsday.
Davis arrived in Harlem in 1938 and worked odd jobs while studying acting. It was a difficult period; at times he was reduced to sleeping in parks and scrounging for food. In 1941 he made his stage debut in the McClendon Players presentation of Joy Exceeding Glory. When the United States entered World War II, Davis joined the Army. He began his service as a surgical technician in Liberia, West Africa. Later, he was transferred to the Special Services Department, where he wrote and produced stage works to entertain military personnel. Among these was Goldbrickers of 1944, which was first produced in Liberia.
After the war Davis returned to Georgia but was soon contacted by McClendon director Richard Campbell, who convinced him to come to New York and audition for Jeb, a play by Robert Ardrey. At age 28, Davis won the lead role and made his Broadway debut. He earned favorable reviews as a disabled veteran attempting to succeed as an adding-machine operator in racist Louisiana, but the play itself was panned and lasted only nine performances. Though it bombed at the box office, Jeb was far from a total loss; it put Davis on the theatrical map, and it was in the cast of Jeb that Davis met Ruby Ann Wallace, whose stage name was Ruby Dee. The two became close and took roles with the touring company of Anna Lucasta. They were married on December 9, 1948. "Ruby was my colleague," Davis told Newsday, "and then she became my friend and eventually my wife."
After his marriage, Davis continued to appear in plays and, as time progressed, he took roles in television and films. Presentations like Stevedore and No Time for Sergeants paid the bills while others, like No Way Out—the powerful film about racial violence with Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee—Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, and Kraft Theater's 1955 television presentation of Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones provided roles into which Davis could sink his teeth. Later, he remembered what an all-encompassing political and social—as well as professional—life the theater was. "In our day, theater was a serious commitment," he told the Milwaukee Journal. "That was the style of the times.… In New York City, you acted in the theater, and afterward, you went to a [civil rights movement] party for a lynching victim later that evening. [Actor Marlon] Brando was in one corner and [actor-director] Orson Welles was in the other corner. It was the same at home. I was born in the South, and my parents were always involved in something, raising money for this cause or that protest."
Noted Poor Treatment of Blacks
Despite some good roles, Davis was not happy with his treatment or that of blacks in general. "I knew I was going to be rejected so I had very low expectations," he revealed in Blacks in American Film and Television. "But rejection did sting. In the theater it took a peculiar form—of having to compete with your peers, like I did for The Green Pastures on Broadway, to fight to say words you were ashamed of. Ruby and I came along at a time when being black was not yet fashionable. There was little in the theater for us except to carry silver trays."
But Broadway was not the only place in which Davis could exercise his considerable talents. "We have always been involved in black theater, in the way that we saw [it]," Davis told American Visions. "Ruby and I took our notebooks and created our own theater. We went out into the marketplace, then to churches, to the schools and did what we could theatrically. Our relationship with black theater has always been continuous. It is just that we had to sometimes define what it is we meant by black theater." Davis and Dee's commitment to the black community went beyond staging dramas; in 1963 they acted as official hosts for the legendary civil rights March on Washington. Throughout the 1950s and '60s they stayed in constant contact with African-American activists such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X (at whose funerals Davis delivered the eulogy), Paul Robeson, and W. E. B. Du Bois. "Protest invigorated Davis," according to People. "Like exercise strengthens the body, struggle strengthens the character," Davis told People in a 1998 interview quoted in the magazine's obituary for him.
Davis and Dee made every effort to build a normal family life for their three children, Hasna, Guy, and Nora. Living in a working-class neighborhood of Mount Vernon, New York, they preserved the family unit, which is so often distorted by the pressures of show business. "I think if there is anything to be said, our children were able at all levels and at all times to participate fully in the life we led," Davis told American Visions. "We didn't live a life away from them. There wasn't a career outside of the house from which they were barred. We managed to function as a family—with a sense of 'us-ness.'"
Realized His Dream of
Being a Writer
Davis, who had never ceased to regard himself primarily as a writer, continued writing and shopping his plays and screenplays to producers throughout the 1950s and 1960s. His play Alice in Wonder appeared in New York in 1952. The drama, which recreated the Senator Joe McCarthy era of Cold-War communist-hunting, was revised and expanded the following year as The Big Deal but was dimly received. It was not until 1961 that Davis's writing abilities brought him real success. Purlie Victorious premiered September 28, 1961, at New York City's Cort Theatre. A comedy about an itinerant black preacher who attempts to claim his inheritance and establish an integrated church, Purlie Victorious enjoyed a long and interesting life; it ran more than seven months in New York City and was later revived first as a motion picture called Gone Are the Days and then as the Broadway musical Purlie. Despite its relatively long run in its first incarnation, Purlie Victorious made little money. Whites did not attend it and without white support, a black theater of that era could not succeed in New York.
Davis spent much of the 1960s earning his bread and butter in movies and in episodes of television shows like The Defenders, The Doctors, The Fugitive, and Bonanza. It was not the kind of work he relished. "I'm not a great actor," he told Blacks in American Film and Television. "I've never devoted myself to my craft with the intensity Ruby has. I've always felt I'd rather be a writer. But we had to make a living." Despite this self-criticism, Pauline Kael, film critic for the New Yorker, wrote that Davis, "in such movies as The Hill and The Scalphunters, brought a stronger presence to his roles than white actors did, and a deeper joy. What a face for the camera. He was a natural king."
As the 1960s progressed, Davis began receiving the kind of attention he deserved; in 1968 his play Curtain Call, Mr. Aldridge, Sir was produced at the University of California at Santa Barbara and in 1969, he received an Emmy nomination for his performance in the teleplay Teacher Teacher. By 1970 he had become one of the busiest African Americans in the entertainment industry. He made his debut as a film director with Cotton Comes to Harlem, adapted Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka's Kongi's Harvest for the screen, and his play Purlie Victorious returned to Broadway as the musical smash Purlie.
Cotton Comes to Harlem was a landmark of black cinema. One of the first black films to make money from a mainstream audience, it opened the way for a wave of pictures about blacks now known as "blaxploitation" films. Unlike that of later, darker movies like Shaft, Davis's vision was more comic. Donald Bogle, author of Blacks in American Film and Television, attested of Cotton, "A joyousness ran through the film that lured audiences around the country into the theaters." Clive Barnes of the New York Times called Purlie, which opened at the Broadway Theater on March 15, 1970, "by far the most successful and richest of all black musicals," describing the production as "strong" and "so magnificent" and praising "the depth of the characterization and the salty wit of the dialogue."
Through the mid-1970s Davis continued to direct. While his films—Black Girl, Gordon's War, and Countdown at Kusini—were received unevenly, there was a significance to his work that critics could not ignore. Bogle commented that "in a strange way…Davis could be called one of the more serious black directors of his era; political undercurrents [ran] throughout much of his work. He…never settled for simply making a standard action movie.… [He] hoped to take black American cinema into a new, more politically oriented direction [and] for that he has to be commended."
Hit His Stride
Davis spent the remainder of the 1970s pursuing diverse interests. From 1974 until 1978 he and his wife co-hosted the Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee Story Hour on radio. In 1976 he appeared in the film Let's Do It Again. Also that year, his play Escape to Freedom: A Play About Young Frederick Douglass was produced at New York City's Town Hall. In 1981, he and Ruby began appearing in With Ossie and Ruby on PBS. Through their company, Emmalyn II Productions, they co-produced the show with two public television stations. The program, which presented a broad mix of material, ran for three years. "It was one of the highlights of our lives because it gave us the opportunity to do shows by authors we respect," Dee told the Greensboro News and Record.
With their children, Davis and Dee worked in the context of Emmalyn II through much of the 1980s, producing a variety of programs including Martin Luther King: The Dream and the Drum and A Walk Through History for PBS. Far from withdrawing from acting, though, Davis continued working on the stage, in film, and on television. In 1986 he starred in a production of Tony Award-Winning American dramatist Herb Gardner's I'm Not Rappaport at actor Burt Reynolds's Jupiter Theater in Florida. Davis appeared in Spike Lee's 1988 film School Daze and in 1989, he played "the mayor" in Lee's controversial and acclaimed Do the Right Thing. It was a role in which he presided not only over the street where the film's action took place but over the coming of age of a new generation of black filmmakers.
When he was past 70 and in the public eye more than ever for his stunning performance as the Good Reverend Dr. Purify in Lee's Jungle Fever, as well as for his regular spot as Burt Reynolds's best friend on television's Evening Shade, Davis reflected on his career, telling American Visions, "I was able to hang on to the gifts of my childhood longer than normal, to daydream, to think of things in the imagination, to play and be a play actor."
In 1992 Davis exercised his gifts as a novelist when he published a story for young adults called Just Like Martin. Centered on the activities of a small-town Alabama church congregation during the civil rights movement, Davis's first foray into fiction is "an attempt to recapture some sense of the black church as a political and moral base in the fight against racism," according to Publishers Weekly contributor Calvin Reid. Of his decision to move in this direction, Davis told Reid, "I can move between these different disciplines because I am essentially a storyteller, and the story I want to tell is about black people. Sometimes I sing the story, sometimes I dance it, sometimes I tell tall tales about it, but I always want to share my great satisfaction at being a black man at this time in history."
On February 4, 2005, while working on the film Retirement in Miami, Florida, Ossie Davis died of natural causes at age 87. His family, friends, and fans gathered by the thousands at a Manhattan church to pay their respects to the acting legend. The funeral was attended by such well-known people as former U.S. President Bill Clinton, Pulitzer Prize winner Maya Angelou, film director Spike Lee, musician Wynton Marsalis, and actors Alan Alda and Burt Reynolds. Many mourners noted Davis's commitment to his art and his unfailing support of his community. The work of Ossie Davis and his wife Ruby Dee consistently "explored and celebrated the lessons of black history in the United States, making the couple, over the decades, an inspiration and iconic presence in contemporary African American culture," as the Kennedy Center Web site noted. He was remembered as "a giant" and "a noble warrior," according to National Public Radio, and as an "American treasure," by the Actors' Equity Association, according to MSNBC. Harry Belafonte, a family friend for sixty years eulogized Davis, saying, as quoted in the Houston Chronicle: "It is hard to fathom that we will no longer be able to call on his wisdom, his humor, his loyalty and his moral strength to guide us in the choices that are yet to be made and the battles that are yet to be fought. But how fortunate we were to have him as long as we did."
With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together (memoir), William Morrow, 1998.
Just Like Martin (fiction), Simon & Schuster, 1992.
Gone Are the Days, Trans Lux, 1963.
(With Arnold Perl; and director) Cotton Comes to Harlem, United Artists, 1970.
(And director) Kongi's Harvest (adapted from work by Wole Soyinka), Calpenny Films Nigeria Ltd., 1970.
Harry and Son, 1984.
School Daze, 1988.
Do the Right Thing, 1989.
Grumpy Old Men, 1993.
She Hate Me, 2004.
The Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee Story Hour, mid-1970s.
(And director) Goldbrickers of 1944 (produced in Liberia), 1944.
Alice in Wonder (produced at Elks Community Theater, 1952; revised and produced as The Big Deal at New Playwrights Theater, New York City, 1953).
Purlie Victorious (produced at Cort Theatre, New York City), 1961.
Curtain Call, Mr. Aldridge, Sir (produced at University of California at Santa Barbara), 1968.
(With Philip Rose, Peter Udell, and Gary Geld) Purlie (produced at Broadway Theater, New York City), 1970.
Escape to Freedom: A Play About Young Frederick Douglass (produced at Town Hall, New York City), 1976.
Langston: A Play, Delacorte, 1982.
The Emperor Jones, 1955.
The Outsider, 1967.
Today Is Ours, CBS-TV, 1974.
Roots: The Next Generation, 1979.
We'll Take Manhattan, 1990.
The Stand, 1994.
Miss Evers' Boys, 1997.
Finding Buck McHenry, 2000.
Ossie Davis performed in over 100 plays, films, and radio programs from the 1940s until his death in 2005.
Bogle, Donald, Blacks in American Film and Television, Garland, 1988.
Funke, Lewis, The Curtain Rises—The Story of Ossie Davis, Grosset & Dunlap, 1971.
American Visions, April/May 1992.
Daily News (New York), February 12, 2005.
Greensboro News and Record (North Carolina), August 17, 1989.
Guardian (London), February 8, 2005.
Houston Chronicle, February 14, 2005.
Jet, February 28, 2005.
Los Angeles Times, July 6, 1989.
Milwaukee Journal, June 9, 1991.
Newsday, March 24, 1987.
New York Post, February 13, 2005.
New York Times, June 30, 1989.
Palm Beach Post (Florida), May 10, 1988.
People, February 21, 2005.
Publishers Weekly, December 28, 1992.
Sarasota Herald Tribune, February 20, 2005.
Washington Times, February 14, 2005.
"Biography: Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee," Indiana University, http://newsinfo.iu.edu/news/page/normal/200.html (March 11, 2005).
"Biography: Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee," Kennedy Center, www.kennedy-center.org/calendar/index.cfm?fuseaction=showIndividual&entitY_id=12124&source_type=A (March 11, 2005).
"Morning Edition: Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee," National Public Radio, www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1119605 (March 11, 2005).
"Ossie Davis Found Dead in Miami Hotel Room," MSNBC, http://msnbc.msn.com/ID/6914059/ (March 11, 2005).
"Remembrances: Ossie Davis," National Public Radio, www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4486027 (March 11, 2005).
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